Imagine you are a 7th grader finishing the school year and looking forward to 8th grade at the end of the summer. You are going to start learning algebra in 8th grade to prepare for advanced high school math. This is important to you because you want to want to become an engineer, and you need high math and science scores throughout high school for admission to engineering school. Imagine that the principle of your junior high conducts a lottery on the last day of 7th grade. The winner of the lottery may skip 8th grade and immediately start high school. He does not require any special tests, grades, or teacher recommendations. He simply picks a lucky winner. Imagine you are the lucky winner. You could leap ahead, and no one will stop you. What would you do?
If you skip 8th grade, you might pass all your courses. Also, you might pass some but fail others. What will happen in high school algebra? Will you really understand the lessons? If you do not learn algebra well, what will happen in geometry and trigonometry? Will you reach your goal of becoming an engineer?
Unless you have exceptional math skills and abilities, skipping the algebra preparation in 8th grade will probably lead to disaster in high school algebra and all the math and science courses that follow from first year algebra. You might become discouraged and give up on your dream of becoming an engineer.
Similarly, each level of fitness builds upon the previous level, and there are three distinct levels of human movement. To illustrate, imagine a pyramid of three parts or levels in ascending order. The first level, or the base, is functional movement. The second level is functional performance, and the third level is functional skill. Whether you train for general fitness or athletic performance, you should examine your abilities at each level and focus your training on building strong skills up through the pyramid. First you must be able to move freely through space with control and without weakness, tightness, and left-right imbalances. This level focuses on stability and mobility of the body. A baby crawls before he walks and walks before he runs. With each new movement, he stretches his limbs in new patterns and learns balance while in motion.
Next you build upon your base of mobility and stability by developing strength and power. After a baby learns how to walk and run, he learns to climb and jump. He has the strength and power for more demanding, stronger moves. At the third level, you apply your ability to move freely with strength and power to the particular skills of your choice. Perhaps you are a parent who wants to play on the monkey bars with your child, or you are a golfer who wants to improve your swing. You certainly could try to skip a grade and master a movement skill without fully developing the requisite mobility, stability, strength and power. You also may see some success for a time. However, weak areas at any level leave you more susceptible to injury, stiffness, aches or at least frustration at an inability to progress beyond a certain level.
Therefore, the performance pyramid helps us understand fundamental human movements and how to build strength, power and functional skill upon these movements. Through this model, we could uncover fundamental weak links in our movement patterns that at best inhibit progress. For example, if you cannot hit a softball with enough power to move the ball out of the infield, you could try to swing harder each time you bat. However, what if your weak link is a lack of rotational flexibility in the trunk and lack of core and lower body strength to generate explosive power from the ground up? Swinging the bat harder will not solve the problem. It may increase the problem by overstretching weak muscles. Similarly, patients recovering from knee surgery do not walk 4 miles before spending plenty of time on rehabilitative exercises to strengthen the muscle groups supporting the knee. Use your training to complement the movement patterns you want to improve, and you may uncover and correct the underlying issues. Sometimes to move forward up the pyramid, you must step backward. Perhaps the pain in your knee did not stem from a defect in the knee itself but rather lack of flexibility in the ankles. If the ankles are tight and unable to absorb force, the force may travel up the body and unduly stress the next joint in line.
In addition to helping us uncover weak links, the performance pyramid gives us a model for continuous progression to higher fitness levels by working with the body’s natural capabilities at various levels. For example, perhaps you failed your first leg raise test due to pain and tightness in your right hamstrings. Your first 4 weeks of training emphasize stretching and increasing pain free mobility in your right leg. During the next four weeks, you work on leg raise core exercises. Now you can move both your right and left legs through various exercises with complete control of your whole body and without pain. After 8 weeks, you increase the intensity of your cardio sessions with some light jogging. For the first time in years, you can jog without pain and tightness in the back of your legs and hips. You lose a few pounds without cutting calories since you are burning more calories during your workouts. After 12 weeks, you incorporate more advanced core exercises and stretches into your sessions. You start doing lunges with a wide range of motion and run intervals. You see more definition in your leg muscles, and you added an extra mini meal to your day to fuel your increased activity. You accomplished this in a few months because you addressed a relatively minor tightness in your right hamstring and built increasing levels of strength and flexibility throughout the body.
As you train, you will see that our bodies tend to progress in cycles rather than linear paths. Periodization is a method of cyclical training that embraces the model of the performance pyramid. Periodization breaks down training into phases that emphasize a particular performance level with periods of recovery between phases to help the body most efficiently progress through performance cycles. See my article on periodization for further explanation of how you could plan your training calendar to reach a sport specific goal, avoid weight loss plateaus, or simply keep your workouts motivating and invigorating.
Source: Cook, Gray. Athletic Body in Balance. Human Kinetics, 2003, pg. 11-13.